On Friday, President Trump, obviously enthusiastic about his media-bashing Thursday press conference, which was widely panned by the media and the left, and widely chuckled at and cheered by the right, took to Twitter to double down on his anti-media messaging:
As per the usual partisan arrangement, the left found the tweet atrocious, and much of the right celebrated it.
Now, the truth is that Trump is just shooting off at the mouth again. He loves the press because he loves using them as a foil. He loves the applause ringing in his ears from his base every time he slams CNN as “fake news” and The New York Times as “failing.” And the media love it too, because they get to play wounded innocents and talk about how they’re the victims of this all-powerful demagogue.
But two things can be true at once. First, the media can be biased — sometimes they lie, sometimes they jump the gun, sometimes they just get it wrong. Second, it can be awful policy for the president of the United States – of any party – to cast himself as the avenging avatar of THE PEOPLE™, making all of his enemies their enemies. Whether Trump means it or not, once a population learns to embrace the notion that Great Leaders cannot be crossed without violating The Will Of The People, the notion of representative democracy begins to decay. And the half-life is short.
Trump isn’t the first president on the scene here. President Obama cast his enemies as enemies of the people, too. But Trump’s less elegant, cruder version of this argument is far easier to track clearly, and the open cheering from the right – the people who were supposed to stand for limited government, checks and balances, and a rigorous public debate on issues – is disquieting, to say the least, given that the right correctly objected to Obama’s strategy.
Since launching his campaign, Trump has said, “I alone can fix it” in his address at the Republican National Convention, a notion completely at odds with the nature of a Constitutional republic; he has cast the courts as illegitimate for opposing him, and blamed them pre-emptively for terror attacks; now he says that the media are the enemies of the American people. There are reasonable version of all of these statements — he could have said he is the only candidate dedicated to fixing these problems; that the court decisions violate the law and the Constitution and undermine the legitimacy of the judicial branch as a neutral arbiter; and that the media’s lies and narrative perversions must stop. Those aren’t the statements he made, though. His language is more in line with Woodrow Wilson’s version of the presidency, which was fully in line with European authoritarian leadership:
[The president] is also the political leader of the nation, or has it in his choice to be. The nation as a whole has chosen him, and is conscious that it has no other political spokesman. His is the only national voice in affairs. Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him. His position takes the imagination of the country… His office is anything he has the sagacity and force to make it.
It’s no coincidence that Wilson was as close to a dictator as the United States has ever had.
That doesn’t mean that Trump is purposefully behaving in authoritarian fashion, that he has authoritarian plans, or that he will succeed in authoritarian governance. He’s shooting from the hip. Most people probably get that. But we’re playing a dangerous game when our leaders declare their interests identical to those of America, rather than the opposite, and start naming people and institutions “enemies of the American people” simply because those people oppose him politically.